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Calamity Jane was a woman of the Wild West who was respected for her talent with a gun and kindness toward others.
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Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary circa May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. By the time she reached 12 years old, her parents had died and she took up the responsibility of raising her younger siblings. It was during this time that she improved her shooting and horse-riding skills and came to be known as Calamity Jane. Her status as a talented yet generous gun-slinger helped to make Calamity Jane a legend, even after her death in 1903.
"I was, at all times, with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. ...I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age."
American frontierswoman Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary circa May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. Very few hard facts are known about Jane's life; much of what is said was likely embellished by magazine writers of her day. What is known is that both of her parents had died by the time she was 12 years old and she took over raising her five younger siblings. After her father passed, Jane moved the family to Wyoming and did whatever she could to support her brothers and sisters.
Jane worked as a cook, a nurse, a prostitute, a miner and an ox-team driver, all the while acquiring impressive riding and shooting skills. In her 1896 autobiography, she stated, "I was, at all times, with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age."
Her rough-riding, gun-slinging reputation is probably the reason she acquired the nickname Calamity Jane. One popular belief is that men were said to be "courting calamity" if they offended her.
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in Deadwood, South Dakota, the site of a new gold rush. In July of that year, the newspaper Black Hills Pioneer announced in their headline, "Calamity Jane has arrived!" Legend has it that it was during this time that she met Wild Bill Hickok, a legendary gunfighter and stagecoach driver.
Jane would later claim that she married him in 1873, but this was three years prior to her first having met him. She also claimed that they had a child together, but if her claim were true, she would have given birth to the child during a time when several official documents state that she was working as a scout for the Army.
While living in Deadwood, Jane hauled goods and machinery to outlying camps and worked as a dance-hall girl. Notorious for being loud and obnoxious, she was truly a legend in her own time. She cross-dressed, cursed and drank most men under the table. However, despite this, she was also known to be quite generous.
1n 1885, Jane married Clinton Burke, and in 1887 she had a little girl, Jane, whom she later left at a convent, after her marriage had ended. By 1893, Calamity Jane was appearing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a trick shooter and horse rider.
She died on August 1, 1903, in Terry, South Dakota, at the age of 51. During the second half of the 1800s, few individuals were as notorious as Calamity Jane, and many of the stories told about her life are riddled with possible truths, changed and enhanced by the people who have shared them around campfires.
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The Wild West holds a special place in American history—Western films depict it as a place where the rules didn't apply, and where scores were settled with gun slinging and shootouts. The colorful characters who made up the old West were men, women, cowboys, Indians, sheriffs just plain outlaws. Though we've come to have a more nuanced understanding of the good and the bad of the old West, we can still learn from the stories of the people who made it and who wrote about what it was.
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